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Risk, Challenge & Safety

The Concept of Safety
in Outdoor Education:
A Hypothetical "Ideal"

James Neill
Last updated:
22 Sep 2003


Some may assume that "safety" is a concrete concept, whilst "risk" is a vague, hypothetical concept.  In fact, its the other way around.  Risks always exist.  But true safety never exists, except in hypothetical situations.  So, risk is reality, safety is a fantasy.

Thus, the concept of safety is a very problematic one.  It is often falsely assumed that it is really possible to "be safe".  Think of "safe sex" for example.  But, there is no such thing as safe sex -- all one can do is minimize the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease through so-called "safe sex" practices.  Even if one gets sterilised and wears 3 condoms, there is the risk of heart-attack and many other morbid possibilities during sex.

Likewise, there are no completely safe outdoor and adventure activities.  There is always the risk of freak events occurring -- and occasionally they do.  Programs and instructors should closely scrutinize their written and verbal language, taking particular notice of the way the word "safety" is used.  Some instructors and organizations explicitly avoid the term "safety" because it can foster false assumptions and expectations.  To claim an activity is safe, when it is clearly can't be, is asking for trouble because sooner or later you'll be wrong.  That's why it is important to play it straight -- share with clients what the nature of the main risks are, don't apologize for the risks (celebrate them!), and allow the person to make an informed choice about participating.

The idea behind "safety practices" is that by adopting certain standard ways of operating, "acceptable" levels of risk can be created.  "Acceptable" risk is of course subjective, and changes over time and across cultures, and varies widely for individuals.  Good safety practices evolve via constant reviewing, based on actual experience and the experiences of others, including research evidence and courtroom decisions.

Despite safety being an illusion, it has become increasingly attractive, especially when people feel vulnerable or threatened.  To strive for safety in an adventure program has become an increasingly valued objective from a societal perspective over the last 2 decades.  The focus on safety, however, has taken on a mantle above and beyond the bigger picture.  "Safety" is one aspect of participant's experience.  We must not over obsess about the holy grail of safety, however.  It is at least as equally, if not more important, to embrace the positive potentials of risk-taking.  Go to "Is Outward Bound Becoming Too Safe?"

One example of how we've become more aware of the lack of safety is that "life jackets" were renamed during the last 10 to 15 years as "personal flotation devices".  The term "life jackets" was seen to falsely imply that they would "save your life" by preventing drowning.  But many people have drowned whilst wearing "life jackets".  The new term, "personal flotation device" (PFD) is rather vague and euphemistic.  It just means "floatie".

It is also important to note and be aware that many practices assumed to be safe are actually quite unsafe in some circumstances.  For example, wearing a PFD can be disadvantageous if it doesn't fit properly or if one is caught in a powerful stopper where the best route of escape would be dive under.

Thus, "true safety", to the extent that it is achievable, can never be achieved by following static rules; it could only ever be achieved by adopting "live", in situ, decision making, based on the dynamic elements in the system.  In other words, "judgement" is required to successfully manage risk.